Business Meetings: The Case For Face-To-Face


Business Meetings: The Case For Face-To-Face

in Facilitator Resources, Facilitation Tips
Business Meetings: The Case For Face-To-Face-3
Forbes Insight

Can webconferences, videoconferences and other virtual meetings really take the place of face-to-face contact?

With travel budgets slashed in the wake of recessionary belt-tightening, companies are increasingly turning to technology as a substitute for in-person contact. Yet business executives overwhelmingly agree that face-to-face meetings are not just preferable but necessary for building deeper, more profitable bonds with clients and business partners and maintaining productive relationships
with co-workers.

And it’s not just one-on-one meetings where face time is crucial. While tides have turned against holding larger corporate meetings, many executives noted the importance of driving profitability and value from these events—where “down” time can be priceless for building bonds with clients and colleagues.

To gauge how companies feel about face-to-face and virtual meetings, Forbes Insights surveyed more than 750 business executives about their meeting and travel preferences.

In particular, they were asked about what types of outcomes they expected from different meeting methods, and what they see as the chief benefits from their menu of meeting options.

Travel down, technology up

For many companies, travel and meeting budgets were the first discretionary expenses to get cut back when economic turbulence took its toll on corporate balance sheets. And
as the recession has continued, these have been among the hardest funds for executives to recover.

This is borne out in Forbes Insights survey, where 58% of respondents said they were travelling for business less today than they were at the beginning of the recession in January 2008, with more than a third (34%) indicating they were travelling much less frequently. (Fig. 1)
At the same time, companies have turned to technology to provide an alternative to face-to-face meetings. Lower costs and greater reliability have made teleconferences, videoconferences and webconferences more pervasive options for meetings. It’s no wonder, then, that 59% of executives said their use of technology-driven meetings had increased
during the recession. (Fig. 2)

Still, executives expressed an overwhelming preference for face-to-face meetings, with more than eight out of ten saying they like in-person contact more than virtual.

(Fig. 3) Asked why, those that prefer face-to-face meetings cited how they build stronger, more meaningful

Business Meetings: The Case For Face-To-Face
Business Meetings: The Case For Face-To-Face-2

relationships (85%), the ability to “read” another person (77%), and greater social interaction (75%). (Fig. 4) Those who favored virtual meetings took more of a bottom-line approach, saying they saved them time (92%) and money (88%), or offered greater location flexibility (76%). (Fig. 5)

“The art of negotiation takes the kind of nuance that is only present in an in-person meeting,” noted Dan L’Ecuyer, vice president of sales and marketing at CSP Technologies, a developer of packaging solutions. “I don’t think you can really get at strategies without face-to-face time.”

Business Meetings: The Case For Face-To-Face-4

Face-to-face provides deeper engagement.

In the survey, respondents were asked to choose the meeting method that was most conducive to fostering a certain business action or outcome. (Fig. 6) Throughout, executives preferred face-to-face meetings when the decision-making process was fluid, requiring the kind of give-and-take typical of complex decisions and sales. For example, respondents said face-to-face meetings are best for persuasion (91%), leadership (87%), engagement (86%), accountability (79%), and decision-making (82%). When web-, video- and teleconferences were preferred, it was  generally for the dissemination of data or when time was of greater concern.

In addition, many executives expressed concern that attendees did not give their full attention to virtual meetings. In fact, 58% admitted that they “frequently” surf the web, check their email, read unrelated materials and handle other ancillary work during digital meetings. It’s not just about attention spans. Remote meetings fail to meet certain other expectations related to morale, recognition, and trust. This is why technology cannot substitute for direct human interaction when it comes to reaching consensus on important business decisions. Travel professionals are not unaware of this bias. According to Mark Briskin, general manager of the New York Helmsley Hotel, “Hotels always seemed to fear technology as a vehicle that will reduce travel opportunities, but face time is key to maintaining relationships, absorbing the passion of your business and allowing an easier flow of ideas.

Ritz-Carlton Reaches Out

Companies catering to business travelers know better than to idle their engines during an economic downturn. In July 2009, the Ritz Carlton Hotel Company launched “Meetings Within Reach,” a value added opportunity for organizers of on-site seminars, executive retreats and other corporate events. The message was, “It’s Not Extravagant, If It Produces Results.”

Ritz-Carlton also knows better than to fight against the rise of technology. In fact, the luxury hotel chain is actively seeking the productive middle ground between face time and remote meetings.

According to Bruce Himelstein, Ritz-Carlton’s senior vice president of sales and marketing, “We are providing these [remote meeting] services to customers who require the technical facilities and know-how to conduct conferences this way. There has always been a need to include individuals via telecasting who are unable to make a business gathering.”

But, he added, technology can never replace the “traditional methods of dealing with people in person, as opposed to across cyberspace.

Business Meetings: The Case For Face-To-Face-5
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Business Meetings: The Case For Face-To-Face-7

Bonding, inspiration and other intangibles

There’s more to a business meeting than closing the deal. The benefits of in-person social interaction—from bonding with co-workers to using time at the pool or café to cement a client relationship—are among the more subtle, less measurable advantages executives cited. (Fig. 7)

According to John Russell, chief executive of NYLO Hotels and former chairman of the American Hotel & Lodging Association, “People don’t want to sit in their office looking at each other on computer screens. That personal interaction—getting together to talk over dinner, drinks or a cup of coffee—is the foundation on which business relationships are built. It’s what drives business.”

Las Vegas Beats the Odds

At a town hall meeting in February 2009, President Obama chided business leaders for what he perceived as extravagant spending. “You can’t get corporate jets,” he said, “you can’t go take a trip to Las Vegas or go down to the Super Bowl on the taxpayer’s dime.” The President was referring to companies receiving federal assistance, but his words were felt across the business travel industry.

If there was a chill, it was short-lived. Few executives will choose remote
handshakes over face time. “Virtual meetings have been around for a long time now,” said Rossi Ralenkotter, president and CEO of the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority, but “you cannot replace direct interaction with a client.

Technological advances have helped companies in establishing contact with potential new clients, but they always send someone in person to initiate or establish the relationship and close the deal.”

Shortly after making that comment, President Obama visited Las Vegas. According to Mr. Ralenkotter, he “attended to business while he was here.”

That would be a win for everyone: Hotels would continue to serve as meeting venues, and companies would reduce travel costs.” Yet Mr. Russell ultimately agrees with the findings of the Forbes Insights survey: “Virtual meetings will never replace face time for building solid business relationships.”

Methodology

This study is based on a survey of 760 business executives conducted by Forbes Insights in June 2009. Half the respondents represented small businesses (under 100 employees), while 20% were from midsized businesses (100-999 employees), and 30% were from enterprises (1000-plus employees). In terms of title, 48% of respondents were either owners or c-level executives.

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